What will the Olympics look like by 2040? – SportsPro Media

The Olympic movement is surely hoping that there will never be another Games like those taking place in Japan in 2021. With no fans in attendance and other movements strictly controlled, Tokyo 2020 can never be the celebration of sport that was once imagined. Its horizons have been limited by the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the immediate term, sport’s blue riband event has been characterised by prioritisation in a very specific context. Over the next decade, however, the time will come to consider what the Olympics can be, and open debates about what it should be.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is building from a place of some certainty. Between now and 2032, the hosts of every edition but one are in place. The spectre of Covid still lingers over Beijing 2022 – along with angry objections to the Chinese government’s human rights record in Xinjiang – and that will still be an exercise in improvisation and compromise. What follows, though, will be a succession of events that could yet nudge the movement towards a different kind of future, and a different kind of Games by 2040.

“I’m not sure everybody has fully appreciated the pace of change that is in play,” says Michael Payne, the former IOC marketing director turned consultant.

“Whether it is city selection,” he adds, “whether it is the whole process of what it means to host, through to the marketing and media agenda, through to the sports agenda, through to life beyond the immediate field of play, there’s a ton of stuff happening. Maybe people haven’t yet connected all of the dots but when you start to see it coming through, I think the change is currently very fluid.”

The IOC retains a reputation for conservatism and control, not least politically, but Payne believes that reforms under president Thomas Bach are beginning to make a commercial impact. Their influence is also likely to be felt in those terms, as well as in the look and feel and execution of the next few Games.

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Paris 2024 is already positioning itself as a different type of Olympic Games

Paris 2024 has pitched greater fan engagement, with a mass participation marathon. Breaking will join sports like climbing and skateboarding among a clutch of disciplines with a low infrastructural impact, part of an Olympic Park concept that is woven more tightly into the city as a model for future editions. And while 24 of the 32 sports will be staged within a 10km radius, and a budget-conscious November 2020 revision will see more sports share space in existing venues, Paris 2024 will break with convention by sending the surfing events to the other side of the world – the Pacific island of Tahiti.

The 2026 Winter Olympics in Milan-Cortina will be among the most regional to date, an attempt to rationalise the overspend and building waste that has blighted past events by sharing existing facilities across northern Italy.

Los Angeles changed the Olympics in 1984 when Peter Uebberoth’s market savvy and enthusiastic courting of sponsors reframed the idea of its financial value. The LA 2028 local organising committee now aims to make its own commercial mark, confident it will surpass its US$2.5 billion domestic sponsorship target.

Its ambitions go beyond that number to a rethink of how major event commercial partnerships can be structured. In April 2019, LA 2028 announced a joint venture with NBCUniversal, creating links between sponsorship of Team USA and the home Games, and rounding out the offer to partners through access to IP rights, product marketing, local activation, and NBCUniversal’s multi-platform media coverage. The proximity – in terms of distance and personnel – to the biggest entertainment media and tech centres in the US suggests further crossovers will follow.

Finally, the Brisbane-led Australian bid for the 2032 Olympics was the first to come through a revised bidding process, with its selection as the ‘preferred candidate city’ of the IOC board more the result of negotiation than a horse race. In theory, at least, this is the start of a more measured, strategic approach.


Payne, one of the architects of the IOC’s global TOP sponsorship project in the 1980s, hints that LA 2028 could drive a similar commercial evolution of that of LA 84. However, he would end the comparison there.

“In the early 80s, it was existential,” says Payne, who detailed the era in his 2005 book Olympic Turnaround. “Would the Olympics survive? There was no money. You were caught in Cold War political boycotts. And you had no host cities. I mean, it was not a pretty picture.

“Today, notwithstanding the incredible operational challenges that are being faced with a one-year postponement for the Games, you’ve got an incredibly healthy outlook. Great cities. Incredible revenues, I mean, beyond imagination. All of it locked up until 2032.

“Yes, you’ve got a radically changing media market, which means you don’t just make a single TV deal and you’re good – it’s a lot more complicated. It also means a lot more people are getting access to content through different platforms and channels. Just take a couple of statistics. Los Angeles ‘84, the most a country could broadcast was 200 hours. [For] Tokyo, OBS is producing 10,000 hours – and a lot of countries are taking it all.”

The final cost of rescheduling Tokyo 2020 will be substantial but the financial health of the IOC heading into the pandemic is not in question. Its financial statement for 2019 showed a surplus of US$73.9 million, with its assets growing from US$4.1 billion to US$5.3 billion.

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The TOP tier of sponsors, whose number has been refreshed in recent years by digital-first brands like Alibaba and Airbnb, contributed US$548.2 million in a non-Games year. Further reinforcement comes through deals with media groups signed up to 2032, with Globo of Brazil, NHK of Japan and, for US$7.75 billion, NBCUniversal of the US. Announced in June and beginning in 2024, a three-Games partnership with Endeavor’s On Location as exclusive global hospitality provider is expected to be the source of further growth.

As much as that provides a position of strength, though, there are still huge challenges ahead to keep a 19th century interpretation of an ancient concept alive into the 2040s and beyond.

Maintaining relevance over that period will be vital to the continued health of the movement and in plotting its future out over four-year increments, the IOC is pushed to think over a much longer span than even some of its closest partners. “A decade isn’t a timeframe most sponsors think about,” admits Ricardo Fort, the long-time global head of sponsorship at Coca-Cola who is now an independent consultant. “In fact, very few think in terms of years. With the pressing demands of sponsorships, most sponsors are really looking at the next 12 to 18 months.

“In my view – I have more time to think long term – there are many areas of concern for the coming years. The structure that holds sports together is very fragile. Fifa relies on the confederations that rely on the national football associations. It is conceivable that these relationships may change in the future, disrupting the entire system. The same goes for the IOC.”


The central tension lies in how far the Olympics can scale up without placing unreasonable demands on hosts. Total expenditure on Tokyo 2020 was recorded in December at US$15.4 billion, including a US$6.6 billion contribution from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and another US$2.1 billion from the national purse.

Those figures exclude capital infrastructure and other investments accelerated by the Games – with the Board of Audit of Japan estimating a further outlay of at least US$10 billion above that official mark. And while disputes run on over what does and does not constitute Olympic related spending, there is less doubt over how poorly sums like those play in the public domain. A string of referendum defeats for Olympic bids in the mid to late 2010s were evidence of a losing argument.

The world’s cities are being presented with distinct new challenges as the 21st century progresses. Many must modernise infrastructure, or meet the housing needs of their inhabitants, at a time when the price of land and development is high. In other cases, thin municipal budgets will be stretched further by the long-term cost of the pandemic response, not least as national resources are redirected elsewhere.

There is the need to connect mobility to exercise and public health. Then there is the biggest shared challenge of all – climate change. No responsible cities will proceed with building work or mass activities whose carbon burden is not carefully measured, monitored and mitigated. The Olympics can be a showcase for best practice but also a barometer of wider damage. Most infamously, research from Canada’s University of Waterloo has led to predictions that only ten of the 19 former hosts of the Winter Olympics will be viable winter sports venues by 2050, and only six by 2080.

“If we talk about events over the next ten, 15 or 20 years,” says Kirsten Sibbitt-Johnstone, an associate director at The Sports Consultancy, “obviously the environment and sustainability, and making sure that we’re investing in things that have a purpose and have a use and are the best thing for these cities and countries, is going to be more important than meeting a rights holder’s needs.”

That means that before anyone can ask where in the world the Games might take place 20 years from now, you have to ask how much of the world they will take place in. Certainly, the days of the classic Olympic model appear to be numbered.

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Abandoned Olympic venues in Athens and Rio de Janeiro are reminders of how public spending on the Games needs to be closely scrutinised

“The IOC has already crossed that bridge, and rightly so,” suggests Terrence Burns, highly experienced in Olympic circles as an executive and advisor for brands and bids including LA 2028. “For the Stockholm 2026 Winter Games bid – for whom I worked – the sliding sports were going to be held in Sigulda, Latvia because great facilities already existed there, it was close to Sweden, and it afforded Latvia the opportunity to experience the Olympics in a way that it never could on its own.

“Stockholm didn’t win – though I would argue that brand Sweden, and its progressive values, is exactly what the IOC needed and still needs. However, the IOC was enthusiastic and encouraging to allow Sweden to spread events around to other regions and countries in order to make the Games more sustainable and efficient.

“In prior cycles, the IOC always insisted on a ‘compact and convenient Games plan’, which in turn caused bidding cities to promise to build new infrastructure with questionable legacy. This new approach is healthy and necessary, and it allows the Games and the Olympic spirit to go to cities and communities that otherwise might never host an Olympic event.”


That raises the question of how far the Games could go from there. If multi-site Olympics are already a reality, there are those who might position a multi-city or even a global version – taking sports to hosts with existing fanbases and facilities – as the logical conclusion.

In a somewhat different setting, Uefa has been conducting the biggest ever experiment in shared hosting across 11 European countries for its delayed Euro 2020 tournament. Playing off the mood of a reopening continent, it has had its upsides but the complexity of the whole endeavour has often outweighed the benefits.

“I would not do it again,” said Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin, plainly, in an interview with the New York Times in May. The concept had been created by his predecessor, Michel Platini, in part as a response to a lack of viable bids for the original tournament.

For other rights holders, Sibbitt- Johnston believes it will pay to wait for a full cost-benefit analysis to understand the lasting lessons. There could be a market among smaller and medium-sized cities for a share in premium event brands like the Olympics. Sibbitt-Johnston sees something of a precedent in 2018’s European Championships, which brought events in aquatics, cycling, rowing, gymnastics, golf and triathlon to Glasgow and an athletics event to Berlin.

“I think that worked well from a logistical perspective but on the flipside, I would query whether the tournament can have that same level of identity and has that same experience and feel about it,” she continues. “I mean, we think that London hosted the Olympics and yes, it did, apart from the sailing. Beijing hosted the Olympics, apart from the sailing. These split models are actually more prevalent than maybe we’ve thought about because there’s just been small bits of them.”

Models where “the countries are well connected or have shared borders” or “shared identities” could provide sustainable alternatives, she says. But reflecting in part on the friction that arose during Euro 2020 between Hungary and its fellow European Union members over a set of laws discriminating against LGBTQ+ representation, Sibbitt-Johnston adds: “In terms of replicating the model, I’d be very surprised if anyone else was looking at a model with 11 different countries, 11 different governments, 11 different political environments that they have to manage.”

Tahiti

Paris 2024 will break with convention by sending the surfing events to the other side of the world – the Pacific island of Tahiti

Unsurprisingly, formal interest in bids for 2036 and 2040 remains immature, although some moves have been made. London mayor Sadiq Khan said during his reelection campaign earlier this year that he would investigate another bid for the British capital – most likely in deeper partnership with other parts of the UK. India and Indonesia will probably retain an interest, having ventured bids for 2032.

Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr region could also renew its candidacy, and it does not take much to speculate on the kind of local European partnerships that could produce similar campaigns in places like Scandinavia or the Benelux region. The Middle East would also be unchartered territory for the IOC.

The Qatari capital of Doha will host the Asian Games in 2030, ahead of its Saudi Arabian counterpart, Riyadh, in 2034. In June the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee (SAOC) signed a memorandum of understanding with the planned US$500 billion city of Neom, itself envisaged as a future beacon for overseas rights holders.

The run of upcoming hosts suggests the IOC is pursuing operational certainty and capacity, particularly after the budgetary and political difficulties that brewed in the run-up to Rio 2016.

“I think the IOC is probably out of the risk business,” says Payne, “because of what went on in Brazil.” Still, that bid for strategic control could be accompanied by more vigorous input from partners.

“The environment, human rights, social justice, gender balance, etc are all a necessary part of our lives and it is great that these discussions are happening in public and very often today,” says Fort. “When it comes to global events, there are many implications and areas of risk to all the different constituents involved with it. The selection of a host country, how the venues are built, human rights, how sustainable are the events, LGBTQI+ rights, etc, it all can add value or create challenges for sponsors.

“Today, sponsors are not involved in the selection of host countries, but I expect them to become a lot more active in this area.”

The selection of a host country, how the venues are built, human rights, how sustainable are the events, LGBTQI+ rights, etc, it all can add value or create challenges for sponsors. Today, sponsors are not involved in the selection of host countries, but I expect them to become a lot more active in this area.

Ricardo Fort, partnership consultant and Coca-Cola’s long-time global head of sponsorship, 

Terrence Burns also believes that social concerns could be brought to bear on future staging decisions.

“Beyond technical legacy and sustainability – eg, venues that are self-sustaining beyond the Games and will not become white elephants – I think the IOC’s focus will evolve more towards the ‘human legacy’ of the Games on the host city’s and nation’s people,” he says.

“Issues such as human rights, for example, will no longer be ‘off limits’ in future host city discussions and preparations. Younger consumers will not allow it. They will be – and are – demanding more. Properties such as the Olympics and the World Cup will need to work hard to deliver demonstrable public and cultural and social benefit beyond the ‘feel-good’ short-term high of the events themselves.”

Meanwhile, the Games will continue to grow in other ways. Payne sees the biggest opportunity for the Olympics in building fan groups around digital content and media, either in different regions or around individual sports.

“The IOC’s early launch of the Olympic Channel, the idea was great, it had a few teething problems – but it’s evolving now to a place that I think is very exciting,” he says. “And being an overall hub and gateway to content engagement and distribution.

“By a decade from now, if not a lot sooner, you will have your completely customised, personal engagement channel. And that means the IOC will be connecting and engaging with each Olympic fan one on one. Four billion of them.”

The value of that potential is reflected, to an extent, in long-term sponsorship deals but its implications for the Olympics as a media experience will take some time to unfold. “The important thing is for everybody to understand what the potential is, to be flexible,” adds Payne.

An accelerating shift towards cloud-based workflows – Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) is now using the Alibaba Cloud as part of the Chinese group’s TOP sponsorship deal – will decentralise storytelling away from the International Broadcast Centre. More and more content will be delivered from remote sites across the host city, or around the world, expanding the footprint of the event and adding an array of new voices.

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The Tokyo 2020 broadcast centre: It is unlikely that the IOC will abandon aggregating the leading national broadcasters

It is unlikely that the IOC media strategy will move away from the aggregating power of leading national broadcasters but any future experiments on Twitch-style shared streaming platforms could be telling. Of greater urgency to the organisation is its relationship with a group that has its own considerable potential in telling and sharing stories about the Olympics: the athletes.

The IOC is currently embroiled in a concurrent set of debates with Olympians, on everything from the right to freer political expression in arenas to the proper share of revenues to anti-doping and welfare policies. Aspects of those conversations will be resolved within the next few years; others will foster generations of push and pull.

What is clear, nevertheless, is that opening up lines of communication for athletes could have benefits in everything from the representation of minority groups to the demonstration of lived Olympic ideals. That, together with an exponential growth in raw media reach, would doubtless be attractive to brands – Airbnb’s athlete-led ‘experiences’ scheme is unlikely to be the last to try and tap into that energy.

How that manifests itself during and between Games will ultimately be the result of a trade-off between the rights the IOC currently protects for itself and its partners and the trust it places in the athlete body.

On the fan experience side, event organisers will be watching examples like that of Warner Music Group (WMG) very closely. In May, WMG made an investment in the virtual concert platform Wave, joining minority shareholders including Chinese digital media giant Tencent, Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin, and artists like Scooter Braun, John Legend, Justin Bieber and The Weeknd.

Virtual concerts have been trialled online in recent years through massively popular multiplayer online video games like Fortnite and Roblox. Repurposing them for the Olympics is an intriguing long-term prospect. Coupled with the remote broadcast capabilities of cloud production and 5G distribution, they could allow for more creative uses of smaller venues – bringing faraway fans, VIPs or performing talent into the action.


In April, meanwhile, the Olympic Virtual Series heralded the first ever licensed events for ‘physical and non-physical virtual sports’ in an attempt to support the online community-building efforts of member federations. Initial entries are on a spectrum between video games and the International Cycling Union’s (UCI) Zwift-powered stationary bike format.

That will sustain speculation about the types of activities that could constitute Olympic events – or more precisely, if esports could become part of an official or parallel Olympic programme. Yet the project could be just as significant if it drives participation and engagement within Olympic sports, generating first-party data and new touchpoints with fans. Combining that with the rising power of the connected fitness sector would bring companies like Apple and Peloton into play.

Ultimately, as much as the shape of the Olympic Games itself changes over the next 20 years, what happens between those events also matters. After beginning life as a scaled-down replica of the full version, the Youth Olympic Games is increasingly being seen as a sandbox for more radical ideas. It also allows the IOC to reach territories beyond the mega-cities that will host its top-tier events. The 2026 summer edition, delayed from 2022 due to the Covid-19 outbreak, is being held in Dakar, Senegal.

As Payne sees it, neither the work nor the possibilities should stop there. In the case of the Youth Olympics, for example, he suggests that building meaningful connections with international school systems is how that project will become truly powerful. He also points to a revival of the global torch relay as another option for taking a part of the Olympics directly to fans.

Whether through its media project or event support, the Olympic brand could easily be made more pervasive across several tiers of organised international sport. The IOC might, hypothetically, seek to establish a more unified presentation of Olympic qualifying events, or band similar disciplines together for promotion even as it shuffles its main programme around.

Anything like that, however, would demand the goodwill of a whole range of different stakeholders, from member federations to commercial partners and, above all, athletes and fans. That underlines one pivotal challenge for the Olympic movement in general and the IOC in particular over the coming decades – to confirm, through word and deed, what kind of a force it will be.


This article features in Issue 114 of SportsPro Magazine. To find out more or to subscribe, click here.